What is Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice?
Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice is a network facilitated by PolicyLink, the City of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, and the Fines and Fees Justice Center. We formed to identify and support localities that want to assess and reform fines, fees, tickets, and financial penalties that disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color.
What are our goals?
Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice identifies and implements reforms that will make a difference in the lives of low-income residents and are feasible for government to implement. Our long-term goal is to create a cohort of cities and counties that act as national leaders by implementing models of innovative and effective reforms; inspiring localities across the country to follow in their footsteps.
Who do we work with?
Our selected cities and counties are awarded $50,000, access to technical expertise and guidance, and membership in a cohort of other teams. Together, they develop solutions customized solutions that draw on input from their respective communities. The cities and counties in our current cohort are:
Allegheny County, PA
Sacramento City and County, CA
Seattle/King County, WA
Shelby County, TN
St. Paul, MN
See more details on in our full press release announcing the inaugural Cities and Counties cohort.
Why do we need fines and fees reforms?
Fines and fees have devastated the lives of millions of Americans, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and punishment—with the harms overwhelmingly falling on people of color and people living on low incomes. Recently, many states, counties and cities have passed important reforms to make their fines and fees more fair and just. And, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, numerous state and local governments and courts are taking emergency measures to change their criminal, traffic and municipal ordinance policies to ensure that fines and fees are not a barrier to people’s basic needs throughout this emergency.
Recent fines and fees reforms around the nation
The City and County of San Francisco, CA was the first in the country to eliminate all county-imposed criminal justice fees in 2018 and moved to discharge $33 million in criminal justice debt owed by more than 21,000 people. This effort was led by network partner Financial Justice Project, based in the San Francisco Treasurer’s office, which has been a trailblazer in fines and fees reform since 2016. San Francisco also cut tow and boot fees in half for low-income residents, reformed payment plans for parking tickets, implemented ability-to-pay determinations for traffic fines and fees, made jail phone calls free, and ended jail store/commissary markups. The City also took action to provide fine and fee relief during the COVID-19 crisis. A full list of San Francisco fines and fees reforms is available here, as well as a guide to fine and fee discounts for low-income San Franciscans.
Durham, NC recently implemented a program with the District Attorney and the court to waive old traffic fines and fees and helped restore 35,000 driver’s licenses that had been suspended for non-payment.
The City of Los Angeles voided nearly 2 million minor citations and warrants that had kept people trapped in the court system. The announcement was designed to fix a system that has led to many people being repeatedly ticketed and arrested for minor infractions, leading to growing fines and warrants. In 2018, Los Angeles County also discharged almost $90 million in debt owed by families for juvenile detention fees; California Senate Bill 190 ended the assessment of juvenile fees in 2018, but did not require counties to end collection of outstanding fees.
New York City became the first U.S. city to guarantee free jail phone calls in 2018. Just one week after this reform was implemented, call volume at the Rikers jail complex increased by 38 percent. Before 2018, NYC was generating about $5 million each year from jail phone call fees.
Alameda County, CA’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to eliminate criminal justice administrative fees in 2019, including fees charged for a public defender, monthly probation supervision fees, and several others.
Shelby County, TN made all phone calls to juvenile detention facilities free in 2019. Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich also adopted a policy of declining to prosecute driving on a suspended license in cases where the license was suspended or revoked for nonpayment of fines and fees, reducing the office’s caseload by 43 percent.
Chicago recently announced it would end driver’s license suspensions for people who cannot pay city sticker fines and parking tickets; create more accessible payment plans for people with trouble paying; and end the practice of writing up city sticker violators twice in one day.
Contra Costa County, CA’s Board of Supervisors approved an indefinite moratorium on criminal justice administrative fees in 2019, including probation fees, public defender fees, and alternative custody programs such as electronic monitoring and work alternatives to incarceration.
About Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice partners
The San Francisco Financial Justice Project is the nation’s first effort embedded in government to assess and reform fines, fees, and financial penalties that disproportionately impact low-income residents and communities of color. Working with community organizations, advocates, city and county departments, and courts, the Financial Justice Project has spearheaded the elimination or reduction of dozens of fines and fees and lifted millions of dollars in debt off of tens of thousands of local residents. The Project’s accomplishments are listed here, and here is a guide to available fine and fee discounts for San Francisco low-income residents.
The Fines and Fees Justice Center seeks to catalyze a movement to eliminate the fines and fees that distort justice. FFJC’s goal is to eliminate fees in the justice system and to ensure that fines are equitably imposed and enforced. FFJC provides resources, makes critical connections, offers strategic advice, and serves as a hub for the fines and fees reform movement, working with impacted communities, researchers, advocates, legislators, justice system stakeholders, and media all across America. For more information on fines and fees work around the country please see the searchable FFJC Clearinghouse here.
PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity by Lifting Up What Works. Over the last several years, PolicyLink has worked to educate advocates and government leaders about the harmful impact of fines and fees on low-income communities, particularly those of color. PolicyLink is a leading proponent of the Families Over Fees Act (also known as California Senate Bill 144), potentially groundbreaking legislation that would eliminate virtually all criminal fees in California. PolicyLink is also a steering committee member of Debt Free Justice California, a statewide coalition committed to ending criminal legal system policies that disproportionately penalize low-income people.
Resources for advocates, organizers and policymakers
Learn how to effectively advance fine and fee reforms in your locality with these webinar tutorials:
- Conducting a Fine and Fee Assessment Part 1 — Engaging Community
- Conducting a Fine and Fees Assessment Part 2 — Gathering Information from Government Stakeholders
- Effective Communications Strategy and Messaging
- Analyzing the Fiscal and Budgetary Impact of Fines and Fees and Related Reforms
- Centering Racial Equity in Fine and Fee Reform
- Evictions and Housing Policy during COVID 19
To learn more about Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Justice contact FFJC’s Policy and Program, Joni Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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